“Certified Humane” Doesn’t Look Very Humane

Another major blow to the belief (myth?) that there are “happy chickens” or “happy eggs,” courtesy of Direct Action Everywhere, which went undercover into a “Certified Humane” chicken farm.

I am particularly sad to see this because while I don’t really think that any animal farming is truly humane, I felt that Certified Humane tried to set stringent standards that would at least minimize animal suffering. And so if I bought eggs for my kids and wife I always bought “Certified Humane” eggs (finding “Certified Humane” milk is nearly impossible).

So now I have to update my view. I still think that Certified Humane sets the most stringent standards for the treatment of livestock. It’s just that those standards allow a lot more suffering than I expected, or can stomach. Which is a pretty sad comment on the state of modern livestock farming and consumer denialism (the video also does a pretty good job of eviscerating Whole Foods’ self-congratulatory and wholly misleading marketing efforts that aim to make Whole Foods shoppers feel good, even virtuous, about the animals that are being abused and killed for their gustatory pleasure).

The whole thing reminds me of a joke I used to have about redefining the word “humane.” Given how humanity really behaves (as opposed to the way we like to think it behaves) it seemed to me that it would be more accurate to define “humane” as cruel, thoughtless, selfish behavior. And “inhumane” would more accurately describe enlightened, empathetic and merciful behavior.

Perhaps I need to look into backyard chickens if my family continues to insist on eating eggs. Though I am pretty sure that as they learn more my kids will eventually stop eating eggs.

Update: Certified Humane,Whole Foods, and Petaluma Farms push back against the video, saying it is edited for impact and does not accurately reflect the experience of Petaluma’s chickens. My bottom line for any farm that wants credibility and trust from consumers is: transparency. Allow open access to certified auditors from animal welfare groups. If a farm is not willing to be fully transparent about how it operates then I am not willing to take what it says on faith.

Humanely-Raised Chickens Is An Oxymoron

Here’s what Jim Perdue says about the chickens he sells:

Here is what a chicken farm that follows Perdue’s guidelines to the letter looks like:

How can there be such a discrepancy? Well, industries spin the facts, of course. And more important, consumers misunderstand the labels used by the industry, and the standards that do exist are mostly set by the industry:

Perdue sells its chicken with a label that says both “humanely raised” and “raised cage free.” The former claim seems debatable, especially considering how nearly one million of its birds are being raised each year—whether within the company’s guidelines or not. And the latter is arguably misleading, because it applies to virtually all chicken meat sold in the United States. Egg-laying birds are often raised in cages, but broiler chickens—those raised for slaughter—are not. In that sense, marketing that chicken meat comes from chickens that were “raised cage free” isn’t all that different from touting the fact that coffee beans were not grown in Siberia (coffee beans, for the record, are not grown in Siberia).

The problem is that these claims, however misleading they might be, are actually pretty effective sales pitches. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consumers prefer cage-free “humanely raised” labels, according to Kristof.

Compassion in World Farming isn’t shy about placing some of the onus on the USDA. The government does have a list of labels that must meet certain requirements in order to be used by meat producers on their packaging, such as “organic,” “free range,” and “no antibiotics.” But the terms that Perdue is using, like “humanely raised” and “raised cage free” aren’t regulated by the government in the same way. Instead, they are based on The National Chicken Council’s animal welfare guidelines, an industry-created standard.

The USDA doesn’t approve the label so much as verify that it meets the standards the industry decided it should meet. Samuel Jones, a spokesperson for the USDA, confirmed the process. “Some companies pay the USDA to verify that they’re meeting specific processing points,” he said. “If it’s cage-free, and they want us to verify that they are meeting their set guidelines, that’s what we do.”

It would of course be nice if the USDA actually set much better and stricter standards for the raising and slaughter of livestock (while there is one decent independent certification, I don’t think any standard can actually make the process “humane”), instead of being a rubber stamp for the meat producers and processors.

But I mainly put the onus on consumers. These days, with all the video and reporting that repeatedly exposes the tortured lives of the animals the public consumes with such gusto, you have to be willfully blind to not be aware that if you are eating meat, eggs, or dairy you are almost certainly the last link in a very profitable chain of misery.  Or you have to be a person who DOES know the truth but somehow can’t bring yourself to the ethical and logical conclusion that you should stop eating meat.

Nick Kristof, for example, did indeed write a great op-ed about Perdue and the Perdue farmer who blew the whistle on how Perdue’s guidelines added up to chicken-abuse. But just when you think Kristof is about to bring his column to a logical conclusion and tell his millions of readers that chicken is now off his menu, he comes up with this:

Perdue’s methods for raising chickens are typical of industrial agriculture. So the conundrum is this. Big Ag has been stunningly successful in producing cheap food — the price of chicken has fallen by three-quarters in real terms since 1930. Yet there are huge external costs, such as antibiotic resistance and water pollution, as well as a routine cruelty that we tolerate only because it is mostly hidden.

Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.

I don’t know where to draw the lines. But when chickens have huge open bedsores on their undersides, I wonder if that isn’t less animal husbandry than animal abuse.

You think? And I think the line is pretty easy to draw: stop eating chicken. James McWilliams wrote a brutal and scathing takedown of Kristof’s lack of moral courage, that is well worth reading. I’d only add that if the facts can’t get a smart, thoughtful columnist like Nick Kristof to stop eating abused animals it’s a pretty discouraging indicator of how meat-eating and the meat-eating culture somehow detaches us from ordinary moral calculation. And that’s a bad thing for billions of animals.

Chicken Engineering

Here’s an eye-opening look at how breeding, hormones and who knows what else has dramatically accelerated the rate at which chickens grow (allowing them to be slaughtered much sooner):

In 1920, a chicken raised for meat was slaughtered at the age of about 112 days (less than 4 months) when he weighed about 2.2 pounds.

Since then, factory farming of chickens has continued a gradual but inexorable rise. With each new decade, chickens were fattened up faster and slaughtered earlier with little regard to the suffering of the chickens.

By 1950, a chicken was fattened up to weigh an average of over 3 pounds in just 70 days, the average age at which he would be slaughtered for his meat.

By 2000, the average chicken raised for his meat grew to weigh over 5 pounds by the time he was slaughtered at the age of 47 days.

Today, in 2013, we fatten them up even faster to weigh 5.89 pounds in just 47 days. Then, we slaughter them.

Even in 1920, chickens used for their meat were likely fattened up as fast as allowed by the know-how at the time. The natural weight of a chicken at 112 days of age, therefore, is no more than 2.2 pounds.

According to the Handbook of Poultry and Egg Statistics, published in 1937, the growth of a chicken during those times was approximately linear. This means that a 47-day old chicken in 1920 weighed approximately 2.2 × 47 ÷ 112 ≈ 0.923 pounds.

According to the USDA Poultry Slaughter reports, the average weight at slaughter in the first seven months of 2013 (January to July) was 5.89 pounds. Slaughtered at 47 days of age, these modern chickens weigh 5.89 ÷ 0.923 ≈ 6.38 times their 1920 counterparts.

Click on the graphic below to see an animated version:

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